Britain's Conservative Party suffered a crushing defeat in the race for two safe seats in Parliament but narrowly lost the third contest, in Friday's election results that sent an ominous signal about Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's political future.
The main opposition Labor Party won its biggest by-election victory since 1945 in Selby and Ainsty, in Yorkshire in the north of England – a dramatic change in fortunes and a worrying defeat for the Tories in the turf that had underpinned their national triumph three years ago.
The centrist Liberal Democrats scored a landslide victory in another former Conservative stronghold, Somerton and Frome, in southwest England, revealing a further rift in what has long been the heart of the Tory electorate.
But the Conservatives avoided sweeps by keeping Uxbridge and South Ruislip, in a northwestern London suburb, a district represented by former prime minister, Boris Johnson.
For Mr Sunak, who has been weighed down by a cost of living crisis and a scandal involving Mr Johnson and other Tories, a win at Uxbridge is likely a great deal – spurred on by an unpopular plan by London's mayor of Labor, Sadiq Khan, to expand a costly low emission zone to cover the district.
The other two races, analysts say, are a better measure of Britain's anti-incumbent mood after 13 years of Conservative rule and provide a possible preview of the general election Sunak should call in January 2025.
Voters in the reliable Tory strongholds of north and south England are fiercely opposed to the Conservatives, suggesting that unless there is a significant shift in the political landscape in the coming months, the Tories are on course to lose to Labor in the next national election.
“No matter how much they try to make things up about Uxbridge, Conservative MPs will know in the depths of their hearts that this is a very bad night for their party,” said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.
The success of Labour in one district and the Liberal Democrats in another, he said, shows that people are voting tactically to increase the chances of beating the Conservatives.
“Voters now know enough about which opposition party to support if they want to remove the government next year,” said Professor Bale.
By-elections occur when a seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant between general elections. The race is sparked by the departure of Mr Johnson, who is reprimanded by his colleagues for misleading them by his presence at the lockdown breakers party; Nigel Adams, a close ally of Mr Johnson at Selby and Ainsty; and David Warburton of Somerton and Frome, who admitted to using cocaine.
Voting took place Thursday, and the results were counted all night into the early hours of Friday.
For Labour, the wins in Selby and Ainsty were among the most striking in decades: The party's candidate, Keir Mather, overturned the largest Conservative majority in a by-election since 1945 by a landslide. At the age of 25, Mr. Mather would become the youngest member of the House of Commons.
“This is a historic result that shows that people look at the Labor Party and see a changed party that is focused entirely on the priorities of the working people with a practical, ambitious plan to deliver,” said Labor leader Keir Starmer.
For the Liberal Democrats, the wins at Somerton and Frome were even more impressive numerically: Sarah Dyke, a Somerset counselor, overturned a Tory majority of more than 19,000 to win the seat by 11,008 votes.
In Uxbridge, there has been a small swing in the vote from Conservatives to Labour. But the Tory candidate, Steve Tuckwell, won by a narrow margin of less than 495 votes, which saved Mr Sunak from the distinction of being the first prime minister since 1968 to lose three by-elections in one day.
In his victory speech, Mr Tuckwell attributed the results to a “damaging and costly” plan by Mr Khan, the mayor of London, to expand ultra-low emission zones throughout the London area, including Uxbridge. Mr Tuckwell campaigned against the plan, which was unpopular with old car owners.
While the Uxbridge race proved the adage that all politics is local, opposition wins in Yorkshire and southwest England demonstrated that broad trends in British politics were still moving decisively against the Conservatives. In national opinion polls, Labor leads the Conservatives by nearly 20 percentage points, while Mr. Sunak has dropped to the lowest level during his tenure.
With Britain under siege by persistently high inflation, a stagnant economy, and widespread labor unrest, the Conservatives faced a real threat of being ousted from power for the first time in 14 years.
While Britain shared some of its economic woes with other nations in the aftermath of the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Conservatives magnified the problem through policy missteps and political turmoil that culminated in the brief tenure of Sunak's predecessor, Liz Truss.
He proposed massive but unfunded tax cuts that alarmed financial markets and sparked his own downfall after 44 days in office. Mr. Sunak suspended Ms.'s trickle-down agenda. Truss and restore the UK's fiscal stability. But his legacy has been a poisoned trophy for Mr Sunak and his fellow Tories with a large proportion of the British electorate.
“The Liz Truss episode completely damaged their reputation for economic competence, and it will be very difficult to win that back,” said Professor Bale.
The UK's recent election saw talk of a major political realignment, with candidates emphasizing values and cultural issues. But analysts say the election is dominated by a cost of living crisis, a kitchen table worry that is hurting the Conservatives after more than a decade in power.
In wins in Selby and Ainsty, Labor hoped to show they had regained the confidence of voters in north and central England — the so-called “red walls”, where they once dominated but lost to the Conservatives in 2019.
Somerton and Frome were a test for the Tories in their southern heartland, known as the “blue wall”. They are under pressure from the resurgent Liberal Democrats, who benefit from voters strategically casting their ballots for whoever appears to be in the best position to defeat the Tory candidate, as Mr. Bale.
This time around, the pageant is also a reminder of the toxic legacy of Mr. Johnson. His resignation from Parliament last month prompted the departure of his ally Mr Adams, who quit after not being given the seat in the House of Lords he had hoped.
Mr Warburton's problems are their own, but they remind voters of the cloud of scandal that has hung over the Conservatives over the past few years. Other Tory lawmakers have been caught up in accusations of sexual misconduct, financial impropriety and improper government lobbying.
“This may be the conclusion of a chapter in the story of Boris Johnson's impact on British politics,” said Robert Hayward, an opinion poll expert who also serves as a Conservative member of the House of Lords. But he added, “Whether that's the closure of the entire book is another matter.”